Consciousness and Complexity during Unresponsiveness Induced by Propofol, Xenon, and Ketamine

Curr Biol. 2015 Dec 7;25(23):3099-105. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.10.014. Epub 2015 Nov 19.


A common endpoint of general anesthetics is behavioral unresponsiveness, which is commonly associated with loss of consciousness. However, subjects can become disconnected from the environment while still having conscious experiences, as demonstrated by sleep states associated with dreaming. Among anesthetics, ketamine is remarkable in that it induces profound unresponsiveness, but subjects often report "ketamine dreams" upon emergence from anesthesia. Here, we aimed at assessing consciousness during anesthesia with propofol, xenon, and ketamine, independent of behavioral responsiveness. To do so, in 18 healthy volunteers, we measured the complexity of the cortical response to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)--an approach that has proven helpful in assessing objectively the level of consciousness irrespective of sensory processing and motor responses. In addition, upon emergence from anesthesia, we collected reports about conscious experiences during unresponsiveness. Both frontal and parietal TMS elicited a low-amplitude electroencephalographic (EEG) slow wave corresponding to a local pattern of cortical activation with low complexity during propofol anesthesia, a high-amplitude EEG slow wave corresponding to a global, stereotypical pattern of cortical activation with low complexity during xenon anesthesia, and a wakefulness-like, complex spatiotemporal activation pattern during ketamine anesthesia. Crucially, participants reported no conscious experience after emergence from propofol and xenon anesthesia, whereas after ketamine they reported long, vivid dreams unrelated to the external environment. These results are relevant because they suggest that brain complexity may be sensitive to the presence of disconnected consciousness in subjects who are considered unconscious based on behavioral responses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anesthesia*
  • Anesthetics, Dissociative / pharmacology
  • Anesthetics, General / pharmacology*
  • Anesthetics, Inhalation / pharmacology
  • Anesthetics, Intravenous / pharmacology
  • Consciousness / drug effects*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Ketamine / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Propofol / pharmacology*
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
  • Wakefulness / drug effects*
  • Xenon / pharmacology*
  • Young Adult


  • Anesthetics, Dissociative
  • Anesthetics, General
  • Anesthetics, Inhalation
  • Anesthetics, Intravenous
  • Xenon
  • Ketamine
  • Propofol